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Monday, November 13, 2017

Italy 0 - Sweden 0: Azzurri fail to qualify for the first time since 1958.

Image credit: David Amoyal
and CalcioLand.

Italy fails to qualify for a World Cup after 60 years as Sweden defeated the Azzurri on an aggravate result of 1-0. The Azzurri could not score once in 120 minutes versus Sweden in a 2018 World Cup play-off that sealed their place on the wrong side of Italian football history.


1. Recent Form: Three Goals in the Last Six Games.
2. Contract Renewal for Ventura before qualification.
3. Mister Ventura's Risky Selections.
4. Swedish Catenaccio?

The Azzurri created chance after chance tonight at the San Siro; however, you have to finish them else they become meaningless statistics. Sweden shut them down for 120 minutes and justly qualified for the 2018 World Cup. This epic failure will be more than a stain, "una macchia," or perhaps more appropriately, "una vergogna," an embarrassment or great shame, for Italian calcio. Some in Italian media are already calling this event an apocalypse. And we haven't even heard what the sponsors think? Yes, the financial loss will be significant. The Azzurri, whether you love or loathe them, are a massive brand in world football.

Italy and its fervent supporters expect to qualify for the World Cup and European Nations Cup as confidently as the sun rises each morning. The last time the Azzurri failed to qualify for a premier international event was Euro 1992. The night will be at least two-years long this time, and perhaps as long as four years. Ironically, the 1958 World Cup and Euro 1992 were hosted in a certain Scandinavian country: Sweden.

1. Recent Form: Three Goals in the Last Six Games:

Adding tonight's clean sheet by Robin Olsen, the Azzurri have scored the dismal total of three goals in their last six competitive games.

Prior to this play-off, Mister Ventura was already talking about going to Russia as a formality. The Azzurri had already selected a team hotel and training facility. Their collective mentality was not proper and perhaps too arrogant. Sweden alone should have been the focus; not the presumption that “We are Italy. There is not a World Cup without the Azzurri.”  

2. Contract Renewal for Ventura before qualification:

Despite the recent results, especially against technically inferior teams, Mister Ventura was given the option of a contract renewal before World Cup qualification was assured. Similar to what happened in 2014 when Cesare Prandelli was given a contract renewal before the World Cup tournament, the Italian Federation should have waited until the proper results were delivered. Their decision to hire Ventura, a veteran manager although one not associated with significant international success, should also be scrutinized after the successful, yet brief tenure, of Antonio Conte.

3. Mister Ventura's Risky Selections:

Let's take a look at the starting XI:

Daniele De Rossi is one of the changing room leaders of the Azzurri, a Senatore (a battled-hardened veteran player) like Gigi Buffon, who on one leg needed to start this game. Jorginho had never started for the Azzurri in a competitive match and had only two previous caps. Lorenzo Insigne, a creative Napoli teammate of Jorginho, started on the bench.
"Why the f*** would I come on? We don't need to draw. We have to win!" (as he pointed to Lorenzo Insigne on the bench).

Manolo Gabbiadini had never played in a game of this stature. To place players such as he and Jorginho in such straits was more than risky. It was a failure by Mister Ventura to recognize what was needed against a physically stronger and better athletically-prepared side for a two-game play-off.

Ventura's 4-2-4 formation which he cited in La Gazzetta dello Sport after the debacle in September versus Spain, "Our project with the 4-2-4 will continue and focus on Immobile and Belotti" was scrapped for a 3-5-2 when at least two goals were needed. Did you see two goals in this lineup against an organized, physically-imposing and disciplined side such as Sweden? Not to mention that several of Sweden's internationals on their current roster had, or have, Serie A experience. For example, Albin Ekdal, Filip Helander, Emil Krafth, and Marcus Rhoden, respectively. They understood how to play against an Italian side.

For me, Ventura lost this team after the game in Madrid. The Senators (Buffon and De Rossi mostly and perhaps Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci secondarily) began to challenge his authority more. Especially in public. I recall a quote by Buffon after the game in Spain to the effect, “Well,.Ventura has been around a long time.” Hardly a ringing endorsement. Tactically, Ventura seemed out of his element internationally. And one can argue that he never should have been thrust into the Azzurri job given his relatively scant international experience despite over 40 years on the bench. But that is a moot point now. Perhaps Gian Piero did his best despite readily discernible limitations?

4. Swedish Catenaccio?

Many will call this outcome a form of "Swedish catenaccio"; however, Mr. Janne Andersson had a clear vision for this team. With two important games over three days, preparation, organization, commitment and belief were integral. As he stated before this tie, "We don't fear Italy." Frankly, he out-coached his counterpart with a great collective, if at times, overly physical display, to qualify Sweden for Russia 2018. His keeper, Robin Olsen, also rose to the occasion tonight with several outstanding saves.

Sweden also finished second in a tougher qualification group than the Azzurri. France and The Netherlands are surely more difficult foes than the likes of Albania, Israel, Lichtenstein, and Macedonia, respectively.

Well done to Sweden. Skål! They merited their place in Russia. To victor goes the spoils.

"The End. Italy without a World Cup after 60 years. The farewell tears of the captain, Gigi Buffon. 'An ugly ending'. Only a 0-0 draw with Sweden. Is Ventura out? 'I'll talk to the Italian Federation President tomorrow'."

Arrivederci, Azzurri, until France in 2020 or Qatar in 2022?

Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator based in Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries since 2006 and published The Soccer Translator from 2008 to 2015. 

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